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The Florida Everglades -- An Insider's Guide to Photography

by Grover Larkins, 1997


The wonders of the Florida Everglades are world famous. Anhinga, Alligator, Heron and Egret have all been immortalized by the cameras of millions of tourists, most of whom have been motivated to visit the Everglades through the Films, Videos and Still Photographs of professionals. Many of these images are taken in four or five well-known locations in the late fall through the spring.

As a third generation native of South Florida and a professional photographer who spends close to 25 hours per week in the field 75% of which are within the Everglades there isn't very much which has managed to slip past me in the past few years. Although there are plenty of tourist guidebooks with "Everglades" sections they very often miss the all important information as to best time of day, season and subtleties about the flora and fauna in the area at the major tourist attractions. Precious few guidebooks go into any detail about out of the way areas in the Everglades. As a result I have seen that even the best informed of foreign visitors, many of whom come regularly to the Everglades, miss a number of the outstanding chances to see, experience and photograph this subtle and enchanting wilderness and its colorful, dynamic inhabitants.

In this article I am going to try to remedy this situation. I will cover the locations, seasons and recommended equipment for all of the five principal photographic "hot-spots" and suggest a few others which are well off these over-photographed "beaten path" places.

First off I will divide the Everglades into three sections. The upper section consists of Shark Valley and Loop Road (off Tamiami Trail (US-41). The upper south section extends from the Florida City main entrance down to Mahogany Hammock. The lower south section extends from Mahogany Hammock down to Flamingo. Each section has unique and interesting facets which vary both seasonally and with the seasonal water level variations.

Upper Section:

The most famous part of this section is undoubtedly Shark Valley. Shark Valley is a wonderfully unique elevated trail through the sawgrass alongside a shallow canal. In the dry season, about December through April, this trail is famous for its Purple Gallinules, Herons and White Tailed Deer.

For best photography it is best to plan on an early start and hit the trail within an hour of sunrise as the canal lies on the west side of the trail. The light is best from about an hour after sunrise to 10:00 am. There are bicycle rentals and tram tours available but the best photography is generally done on foot. Note: The parking area at Shark Valley opens at 8:30 am and closes at 6:00 pm; you are allowed to park outside and walk in to the park. Caution -- don't leave any valuables in the car and do park out on US 41 where your vehicle is visible to traffic going past. This will help deter would-be thieves.

Recommended equipment is a sturdy tripod, a 300 to 400 mm lens with a teleconverter to get a range of 300 to 600mm in focal length. Bring lots of slow film; Fuji Velvia, Fujichrome 50, Kodachrome 64 or Agfa's new ISO 50 Chrome should do fine. This isn't a particularly great scenic location but a wide angle or short macro lens doesn't weigh very much, so I would recommend taking one in the event that there is a nice cloud scene. There are usually lots of snakes, butterflies, flowers and interesting insects, so the macro lens with a small flash is my personal choice.

To find Purple Gallinules it is best to first locate an open section of the canal with lots of lily pads. Look around for a bird and, if you see one, set up your tripod, telephoto lens and camera. Wait for the bird's search for insects on the lily pads to carry it into your field of view. Standing still and remaining silent are the key to getting good photos of the Purple Gallinule -- don't chase the bird, it will come to you.

Also at Shark Valley look for Deer early in the morning out in the sawgrass prairie beyond Otter Caves trail (a short walking trail which threads through a tree island before rejoining the main trail 500 meters further on). As the areas away from the main trail begin to dry out during the dry season the deer tend to move out further from the trail; during wetter seasons they are often seen up grazing on the roadside.

Herons, egrets and other wading birds often nest right along the canal (on the far side), look for unusual activity in late February through March and set up and wait for your chance.

As the dry season progresses and the canal becomes a series of small disconnected ponds you may want to look for fresh otter dung on the trail. Otters seem to regard the trail as a toilet! Otter dung is an extremely slimy greyish-white semi-solid material; Alligator dung is more solid and there won't be nearly as much of it up on the road in nearly the same location (I've counted over 50 otter-dung splotches in one ten meter section of the trail). Once you find a likely looking spot set up your tripod and lens (300-400mm is plenty of lens) and wait for the show to begin. If you have guessed correctly it won't be more than two hours before you have several otter fishing and playing right in front of you. If you prefer, you may ask at the visitor center as to where they have seen otter recently; however you should be aware that the vast majority of visitors to Shark Valley never see an otter as they often hide from bicyclists and the tram.

Much less well known and certainly less photographed is Loop Road. Loop Road is five or so miles west of Shark Valley and threads through some truly wild areas. Only the eastern third of the road is paved so, if you don't have a truck or jeep you are somewhat limited to the paved eastern section. This is really not so bad; there are lots of snakes, otter and birds along the canal. Please don't handle any snakes; there are several venomous (both the Water Moccasin and the Diamondback Rattlesnake can be fatal) species in this area and those which are not poisonous can still give a nasty bite!

A truly outstanding and, so far as I know, unmatchable opportunity to photograph Liguus Tree Snails is available on the nature trail at the Everglades Education Center on Loop Road. This trail winds through a tropical hardwood hammock and light is never outstanding. Bring your macro lens and a ring or macro flash -- a tripod is unnecessary.

Tree Snails are most active at night and after a rain in the summer as are both mosquitoes and snakes. The winter dry season is often spent in a state of suspended antimation called estivation so this tip is best from April through September. Caution is advised as there are known to be Diamondback and Pygmy Rattlesnakes in the area; wear boots, walk slowly, watch where you are going to step and don't step where you cannot see!

Upper South Section:

The most famous trail in the entire Everglades, and the most frequently visited one, Anhinga Trail, lies in this section. This trail is good throughout the day, but it is best early on weekday mornings as visitation on weekends is very high during the peak winter months (December through March).

Almost every bird in the entire park has been seen at Anhinga Trail at one time or another. The more commonly seen species are Anhinga, Yellow Crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, Common Egret, White Ibis, Purple Gallinule, Tri-Colored Heron, Moor Hen and the Palm and Common Yellowthroat Warblers. Also common at Anhinga Trail are the American Bittern, Belted Kingfisher and the rare Short-Tailed Hawk; these species are either shy or just unobserved by the casual visitor.

This is also one of the best places to photograph Alligators, however, there is a resident 'Gator in nearly every body of water in the entire park. There are several types of aquatic turtle represented here as well. If you should visit in late April or early May you have a good chance of observing the Soft-Shelled turtle up-close and personal as the females attempt to lay their eggs in the sandy bank of the trail by the canal.

Bring your tripod, a telephoto lens (300-600mm) and lots of film!

Less well known is the fact that Anhinga trail is one of the better places to see the "Butterfly Orchid" native to the Everglades. It blossoms from May to June and there are quite a number of plants (which are guarded by HUNGRY ALLIGATORS!) in the trees just behind the shelter on the boardwalk. A close focussing (or normal focussing with extension tubes) 400-600mm lens, tripod, cable release and flash are recommended for this photo.

Another beautiful area is on the old Ingrahm Highway just West of Anhinga Trail. This is a real insider's tip: Take the Anhinga Trail (Royal Palm) turn-off from the main park road to the fork and take the road toward the "Dan Beard Research Center" instead of continuing on to Anhinga Trail. Follow this "Research Center Road" until it makes a 90{o} right hand turn. Do not take the turn; continue straight on the dirt road until you cannot continue any further (about 1-1.5 km). When you come to a gate, park your car out of the way and take a telephoto lens, tripod, and your macro equipment and walk about 200m until you come to a relatively open area on your left (wear shoes that can get dirty!).

If you walk out into the prairie in the spring (March-April) and look around you should find some beautiful lavender and white terrestial orchids. Pease don't pick any flowers, there is up to a $500.00 fine for doing so!

This is also one of the better places to see and photograph White Tailed Deer in the park, there is no guarantee but I've seen them there quite often. Also if you are there either early in the morning or late in the evening this is one of the few places where you have a chance to see a Panther (I've seen them there but it is about one chance in a hundred that you will see one).

Continuing South on the Main Park Road you will come to the Long Pine Key Campground. This is a decent place but not my first choice for photographing anything. The same can be said of the Pinelands Trail.

The next interesting place is one of the best kept secrets in the entire park -- Pine Glades Lake. Pine Glades Lake is an unmarked turn-off to the left between the Pinelands Trail and Pa-Hay-Okee. The dirt road to Pine Glades Lake winds for about a kilometer up to the lake and a small parking area. This is the best place in the entire park to see and photograph Deer. Between late August and the end of October the deer are usually somewhere in this general area. Where there are Deer there are also Panther (sometimes); I've seen plenty of tracks on the west side of the lake.

Pine Glades Lake is also the absolute "best" place in the entire section (and probably park as well) to photograph the sunset. It is also almost unknown and, compared with almost everywhere else, un-photographed! Just set up your tripod at the edge of the lake by the parking area and wait. I've been very pleased with the results from 28, 35, 50, 85, and 200mm lenses. Its not like you are going for a long walk so bring it all; if the sunset is good you'll want to use it all. The best time for photographs (in my opinion) is from 5 to 35 minutes after the actual sunset so don't leave too early! Tip: Cloudy days can have spectacular sunsets, don't give up until its dark!

A few miles further down the road is the Pa-Hay-Okee turnoff. This is an interesting place and I have often gotten good photographs of the resident Red-Shouldered Hawks in this area by photographing them through the open window of my car. This area has good sunrise photo-opportunities but is somewhat overshot. The best Sunrise photos in this area are out on the Main Park Road about 200-800 meters beyond the Pa-Hay-Okee turn-off. Use a telephoto to isolate a Bald Cypress against the sun and try to find one with a clear background and a bird in it.

My personal favorite for Sunrises is on the Mahogany Hammock turn-off about one kilometer from the Main Park Road. This area is good since you can isolate a small group of Pine trees against the rising sun using a telephoto or use a wide angle for a breathtaking scenic. Tip: look for clouds and FOG!

Since you are effectively photographing from the road take and use a tripod and every lens/camera orientation combination possible. Exposure tip: Spot meter off the Brightest part of the scene but at least two solar diameters away from the sun if it is in the scene; use small apertures and slow film. Note: If you are using a telephoto lens and including the sun in the photo keep you exposure time to 1/30 sec. or less to stop the elongation of the sun as it rises.

This area is also a great place to see and possibly photograph Bald Eagles as they tend to roost fairly near the road here. If you stay in your vehicle and photograph out an opened window you can usually do fairly well.

Please do not approach any nests you see; even if they do not appear active there may be an adult either on eggs or chicks. Mornings can be cool and it doesn't take much to freeze an egg or a newly hatched chick once the parent is off the nest. There is also a considerable penalty for harassing a nesting Eagle ($500.00).

This is our last stop in the upper section; Mahogany Hammock. This Hardwood Hammock is famed for its trees and the Barred Owls which nest there each year. Your best chance to see the owls will come during the day when they are often found roosting over the boardwalk inside the hammock. Take a tripod and some medium speed (100-200 ISO) film and/or a powerful flash -- its dark in the hammock. It is also often quite buggy, seemingly alive with mosquitoes in the late spring and summer months. I recommend a 300-400mm lens and a cable release with off camera fill flash and plenty of insect repellent! Caution: the using of electronically or mechanically generated calls to attract animals is against the law in the Everglades -- at Mahogany Hammock it is also quite dangerous as the Barred Owl population is relatively dense here and territories are vigorously defended; people have nearly lost eyes to these owls!

The best season to see the Barred Owls at Mahogany Hammock is late spring through early summer with prime time at the end of April when they are feeding rapidly growing chicks and will hunt well into the day.

Lower South Section:

This includes the entire area South of the Mahogany Hammock Road and has several World Famous photographic locations: Mrazek and Eco Ponds. These two ponds differ in several important respects.

Mrazek Pond is seven miles north of Flamingo directly on the Main Park Road. If Mrazek is "happening" it is one of the most fabulous wading bird spectacles in North America as over 500 Herons, Egrets, Storks and Spoonbills go into a feeding frenzy and literally fight for space on the pond. If Mrazek is not "happening" then it is totally empty and appears to be entirely devoid of life. Mrazek usually only "happens" once each winter in the late winter/early spring and it almost never lasts for more than two weeks from start to finish. If you want to see this as an international tourist you are either going to have to be lucky and hit it just right or spend money and call the Everglades National Park and book your tickets on short notice and pay FULL FARE. Good Luck! March is probably your best bet but call anyway and schedule an alternative plan if your timing is wrong.

In the event that you hit the jackpot and time everything just right and Mrazek Pond is "HAPPENING" look for the following types of photo-opportunities: Egrets with their plumes spread, Egrets in Flight over the Water and Fishing/eating activity. Roseate Spoonbills look best with their wings up; both they and the endangered Wood Stork have really UGLY heads. Either accentuate the ugliness of their heads with portraits or hide it with action; otherwise pass the shot up. Mornings are the best time and back/side lighting are the norm in the morning. Make the most of it and use the light to x-ray the wings of birds in flight.

If there is FOG use it to get the misty pastel type of watercolor photo that only backlit fog can give -- there are great photos in fog.

I recommend a fast telephoto of 200-400mm and a film which will allow action stopping shutter speeds (say 1/500-1/2000 sec.) at your maximum aperture. Shoot your backlighting either with the meter or at one stop over the incident exposure (ie if your incident light meter indicates 1/1000 sec at f2.8 shoot at 1/500 at f2.8. Recommended films for lenses which fall in the maximum aperture range of f5.6 are Kodachrome 200, Agfachrome 100, Fujichrome 100. If your lens has a max. aperture of f4 or better then you should consider Kodachrome 64 and the various ISO 50 films. Kodachrome 25 and Fuji Velvia are only for those really sunny days with the big cannons such as the 300 2.8's 400 3.5's etc.

Afternoons are not as wonderful in terms of the numbers of birds in the same place at the same time but there is front lighting -- generally the shadows begin to get a bit strong about one to one and a half hours before sunset due to the trees along the edges of the pond.

Note: Watch out for birds in the background -- one poorly placed background bird can ruin the entire series, this is one place where shooting lower to the ground may be disadvantageous. Think your shots through first and save your wallet and the garbage can! Its really easy to get carried away at Mrazek.

Eco pond is located just off the Main Park Road south of the Flamingo lodge and just north of the Flamingo Campground. A small isolated freshwater pond formed by the reintroduction of used waste water from the Flamingo sewage treatment system, this pond is the lower south end's one year-round hot spot.

At Eco pond ibis, moor hen, coot, ani, and the various herons and egrets are present more or less throughout the year. Mid-winter is the best season to photograph at Eco pond as the mosquitoes are absolutely unbelievable in the Flamingo area in the warmer months.

My recommendation for Eco pond is to concentrate on the East side of the Pond and check out the back side during the first three hours of the morning. Look for Least Bitterns, Soras, and Virginia Rails in hunting in the cattails at the edge of the pond. Don't bother with the Egrets and Herons unless there is a real opportunity, they are overphotographed and easier to photograph in other areas of the park.

My usual way to photograph Eco pond is to begin at the observation tower and slowly walk East (to the right) around the pond while checking out the pond edge and the bordering trees for interesting subjects. Tip: Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers are often found in the trees near the observation tower. I usually carry two lenses (300 and 400mm), an extension tube (Nikon PK-13), a heavy tripod and both the 1.4 and 2 X teleconverters on this walk. This seems like quite a lot but I am often moving only 50 meters or so before stopping to try out another photo-opportunity so there's plenty of chances to rest.

What is a bit of an insider tip is the fact that Eco pond is also a great songbird photo location. There are often Painted and Indigo Buntings, Prairie, Common Yellowthroat, and Yellow Throated Warblers are common and with a little patience and a 600-800mm lens and an extension tube (300 or 400 mm lens with teleconverter and extension tube) you may be surprised as to the opportunities.

A real INSIDE TIP is the fact that the local Osprey population dines out on the many dead trees on the coastal prairie behind Eco pond. There are often good possibilities for photographs if you are willing to approach SLOWLY and on a path which does not lead directly to the bird but PAST it at some distance.

A real Inside location is the parking area in front of the Flamingo visitor center and Marina. In late April and May the numerous coconut palms in this area play host to a suprising number of Common Flicker and Red Bellied Woodpecker nests. A bit of searching and some luck will allow you to find a nest only one to three meters off the ground.

Use a focal length of 600-800mm, a tripod, cable release and don't get any closer than 4-5 meters from the nest. When the birds fly in to the nest with food they will land on the trunk of the tree and pause for a second or two before feeding their ravenous chicks. NOTE: If you don't observe any feeding activity at the nest and don't hear any chicks they are likely on eggs -- leave this nest ALONE! Also, should the birds show signs of anxiety over your presence (landing and staying in neighboring trees even when they have food to take to the nest, staying on the opposite side of the tree trunk etc.) either back off or LEAVE!

Tip: Stand or sit still and use off camera fill flash.

Final INSIDE TIP: Mosquitos and Deerflies are wonderful MACRO subjects -- 2-4X lifesize they really look impressive on a projection screen. Use a flash and an f number on the prime lens of f11-f16 to insure adequate depth of field.

Cameras:

35mm SLR with TTL Flash Metering and Motor Drive (Autofocus is not necessary)

Lenses:

28mm or 28-70mm Zoom

50 to 100mm Macro

300 or 400mm Telephoto or 100-500mm Tele-Zoom

1.4 and/or 2 X Teleconverter

Tripod:

Largest you can comfortably transport -- should be at least Manfrotto 190 size -- with a sturdy Ball Head (Linhof Profi II, Arca Swiss B1, Schoon, Manfrotto's largest Ball etc.

Lighting:

Ringlight or two small MACRO electronic flash units -- TTL is a real help!

Large Electronic Flash -- GN 40 @ ISO100/21DIN in meters, 130 in feet.

Bring with an "Off Camera" TTL remote cable

Film:

Depends somewhat on your lenses -- if your prime telephoto has an aperture of f4 or better I recommend either Velvia (rate it at ISO40) or other medium-slow films of ISO 50-64. If your prime telephoto is f5.6 or f8 then I recommend trying Fujichrome 100, or Kodachrome 200. Take a mix of about 10-20% slow film (Velvia or Kodachrome 25) and 70-80% medium slow film Fujichrome 100 etc.

Bring LOTS of FILM -- I can go through 50 rolls per week with no problem!!!!


? Copyright 1997 Grover Larkins

Article created 1997